The Crime News Scene
November 27th, 2018
Crime news is the most popular category of news stories, with true crime stories appealing to a huge number of people. True crimes have cultural impact beyond traditional reporting, inspiring TV series, fictionalizations, dramatisations in many art, literary and performance forms.
Crime news is the fourth largest category of news reporting, after sports news, general interest, and business news. In the USA it accounts for up to 50% of news coverage. This means crime is over-represented, in terms of the effect it has on people’s lives, as far fewer crimes are occurring and they are less serious than the coverage suggests. The coverage by type of crime is not representative either – violent crimes make up only 6% of reported crimes, but 50% of the news coverage. Homicides by young offenders get huge amounts of coverage, but are extremely rare. Continuous discussion over finer and finer details and analysis of these crimes keep them in the public mind. People then believe that the crime youth rate must be rising.
Far more coverage is given to victims who are high status – wealthy white women appear disproportionately. This echoes racist narratives promulgated by slave owners and their associates in response to black and white indentured servants starting to form alliances. The ancient myth of the damsel in distress becomes the pure innocent white princess who needs protecting from the black villain. This myth has been resurrected over the centuries by groups of people wishing to demonize another group. As white supremacist propaganda in the USA, it has risen in intensity whenever people of colour have been successful and increasing their political, social, economic or cultural power. A form of it is currently in use by Donald Trump, who portrays Mexicans as a threat to innocent American women.
Women who are afraid of crime are more easily persuaded to limit their behaviours – stay at home, not go out alone, and rely on the protection of men. White women see themselves as victims in the media so are more likely to become over-anxious about the threat of crime. They then overlook and underestimate the impact of crime on other women – like women of colour or transwomen – who are in real life more likely to be victims. The cases of JonBenét Ramsey and Madeleine McCann have received huge amounts of coverage, but how many people can name any of the at least 3,000 missing or murdered indigenous women and girls in Canada?
Interestingly, it is women who make up the majority of consumers of true crime storiesin many formats – from traditional news to podcasts. The psychological reasons are complex and varied. Women may be trying to get back a sense of control – perhaps to learn how to identify dangerous men, to understand the best ways to de-escalate or escape from a situation. It may be comforting to explore fears from a safe space. Some women report watching true crime because they or someone in their lives has had direct experience of it. Others may be reacting to anxiety and an urge to be vigilant and aware of any threats that may affect them. Adrenaline and excitement could also be part of the appeal.
Crime news reporting both reflects the political mood and affects it. This is one reason why crime coverage is often mired in controversy. A politician can win or lose office based not on the reality of crime, but merely on the perception of it. Did the white women who voted for Donald Trump do so because they believed he was the only one willing to protect them from the mythical Mexican villains – a threat no-one else was taking seriously? In reality, women are more likely to suffer sexual violence at the hands of someone they know. Domestic violence gets very little press coverage, and hardly any national press coverage compared to rare and sensational cases.
Crime news is so psychologically impactful and so politically significant, it is bound to get a lot of coverage. However, making sure crime journalism is supporting psychologically healthy readers form balanced opinions about the realities of crime in their areas requires vigilance. We need to make sure the press becomes less concerned with chasing ratings or pleasing sponsors and more intent on making sure its coverage is not encouraging violence or damaging society. We are, after all, the viewers who drive the ratings. We need to be sure we can tell the difference between enjoying crime stories and understanding crime in reality.